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Schools and taverns can coexist

The Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board will grant a license for All Souls, the proposed restaurant to occupy the long-vacant storefront at 725 T Street NW in the Shaw neighborhood. While most liquor license applications face protests over noise and trash, several residents had objected on the grounds that children at the school across the street would be harmed by merely viewing adults consuming alcohol.

The vacant storefront where All Souls will locate. Photo by the author.

The objection seemed like a quaint, Puritanical reaction incongruent with a diverse, secular city. All Souls thus became a lightning rod for unexpected opposition in March, drawing crowds and TV news coverage to its liquor license hearing. Long before the hearing, however, the proprietor agreed to only serve alcohol inside and only serve after 5 pm.

DC law does, however, recognize that alcohol-serving establishments near schools merit at least some level of extra scrutiny. In fact the law prohibits the issuance of liquor licenses:

within 400 feet of a public, private, or parochial primary, elementary, or high school; college or university; or recreation area operated by the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation (DC Code 25-314(b)(1)).
The protestors, legally referred to as "protestants", thought this provision would damn the All Souls application. The same section of the DC Code, however, lists 10 exceptions to the 400-foot rule, including this important one:
The 400-foot restriction shall not apply if there exists within 400 feet a currently-functioning establishment holding a license of the same class at the time that the new application is submitted. (DC Code 25-314(b)(3))
The board found that the Mesobe market on 7th Street NW is indeed already within 400 feet of the school. The distance measurement, the board's ruling stated, "'shall be the shortest distance between the property lines of the places.' 23 DCMR 101.1 (West Supp. 2012)."

The existence of Mesobe within 400 feet of the school provides a precedent that satisfies the exception for All Souls, the board decided in its ruling.

With that argument down, the board addressed the general assertion that it is unsafe for children to view adults consuming alcohol. Here is where the board delivered its most scathing criticism of the objectors:

Finally, we reject the Protestants' unsubstantiated assertion that the mere sight of the Applicant's tavern will be detrimental to the students of Cleveland Elementary School... Indeed, if we accepted the Protestants' argument that the mere sight of adults in a tavern consuming alcohol is harmful to children, the Board would similarly have to ban children from:
  1. entering restaurants that serve alcohol to patrons;
  2. attending sporting events where alcohol may be consumed by adult fans;
  3. eating dinner with their parents if wine is served with the parents' meal;
  4. participating in religious ceremonies where wine is part of the service; and
  5. walking through neighborhoods with large concentrations of liquor-serving establishments during the daytime, such as Adams Morgan and U Street.
The board further described the objection as "unworkable, unreasonable, and not in accordance with current societal practices."

There are a few important lessons from this case. The most important is that District boards don't always cave to the flimsily argued demands of a vocal few. A common complaint, especially among the business community, is that DC's various boards, such as Zoning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), the Old Georgetown Board, the ABC Board, etc., exercise their discretion in ways that are too often inconsistent or outright bizarre.

The most frustrating experience with these boards is encountering unsupported opinions. In cases before the HPRB, many opponents argue that a proposed building is "incompatible" with the historic district while they fail to elaborate why it is allegedly incompatible. Georgetown resident Topher Matthews explained this sentiment that I have also encountered when following historic preservation cases:

Time and time again, neighbors use the historic preservation design review process to object to the size of the project rarely out of any genuine concern for the preservation of the neighborhood's historic character but rather because they simply just don't like the project. The basis for the complaints would be no different than if the project were in a brand new development with no historic character: it blocks my view, it's too big, you'll be able to see into my garden, et cetera.
In the All Souls case, the school proximity argument failed to establish harm to students to a degree that would warrant killing off a fledgling local business. It is a non sequitur to many people that children are harmed by catching a glimpse of adults across the street sipping wine at 5 pm. Merely believing that something is true doesn't necessarily make it true. In rejecting this claim, the ABC Board rightly stood firm in the factual evidence presented to it.

The entire licensing process, which was unusually protracted in this case, certainly cost the proprietor of All Souls a hefty sum in legal fees. When the proprietor attended community meetings on his proposed license, he usually had his attorney with him to address the fine legal distinctions, especially as it applied to the somewhat complicated 400-foot rule.

In fact I pitied the man. All he wanted to do was open up his small businesses. His modest license request unleashed the histrionic vitriol of a few strident Furies who spoke as though he were defiling the sanctity of childhood itself!

The board ratified a voluntary agreement between All Souls and three neighbors uninvolved in the school-proximity protest. The text of this side agreement is not currently available, but if it is like most other voluntary agreements, it likely negotiated closing hours and restrictions on indoor music volume, not moral arguments about child psychology and societal vice.

For all the complaints about DC's regulatory bodies, the regulatory system worked rationally in this case. The board ratified the agreement with the neighbors willing to compromise. It rejected outright the protest of people who refused to believe the business should even exist.

The good news is that even the opponents who lost their case actually won. Cleveland Elementary School is a great school and will continue to be a great school long after All Souls has poured its inaugural beer. The conversion of the vacant storefront into an occupied business will deter the loitering and drug-dealing along that block of T Street and will remove a visible physical blight from the neighborhood.

The neighborhood and the school will both be better off once All Souls opens.

Cross-posted at Left for LeDroit.

Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 


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It's great to see that the Board found that the objections to All Souls were as ridiculous following scruitny as they appeared on their face.

But the truly frustrating aspect of this is that All Souls even had to go through this in the first place. Nearly everyone could agree that objecting to All Souls on the grounds that children might see adults drinking was absurd on its face--and yet, this process dragged on for months and cost the propretor thousands of dollars in legal fees and lost operational time. The process by which a protest can be brought against a business owner seeking an alcohol license must be reformed. Exactly how many examples of abuse does the District government need to see before they act on this?

by Ben on Jun 21, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

These kinds of rules are pervasive and certainly not DC specific. They have little to do with religion, per se, as with a rather middle class worldview that once might have been considered "progressive". Their effect usually isn't evident unless you live in a place with enough urban density for a school to be near bars.

by Rich on Jun 21, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

FWIW, this argument is made a lot. The issue is moot mostly, because for the most part the establishments serve alcohol when schools are closed.

It's also an issue for mixed use districts that may have churches or schools, as well as retail establishments. Privileging churches or schools wrt alcohol sales issues is a problem in mixed use commercial districts. This has been a particular problem on 9th St. NW--look up the case of Vegetate in back issues of the Post, it was also an issue with Shiloh Baptist Church.

The reason the law wrt schools was changed a few years ago resulted from the location of charter schools into mixed use districts.

FWIW, in the Chicago suburbs recently, there was an issue of a strip bar opening next to a convent.

by Richard Layman on Jun 21, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

And it's so easy to get a liquor license in Maryland or Virginia?

DC approves every liquor license. The charade of allowing citizens to vetch for a couple months before doing so is kabuti theater.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 21, 2012 4:23 pm • linkreport

vetching may be kabuti theater, but I think kvetching is kabuki theater.

by OySauce on Jun 21, 2012 4:28 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris

And are there reasons why any establishment shouldn't have a liquor license? The ABC has in the past denied upgrades to liquor licenses (see Haydees). And they take them away from/deny them to places that break the rules (see Shaw Tavern).

And I think you mean "kabuki" theater.

by MLD on Jun 21, 2012 4:30 pm • linkreport

If you have to hire a lawyer just to find some sort of way to prove that by serving alcohol to adults you aren't corrupting the minds of precious children who will likely never eneter your establishment seems to more than just "kvetching". The fact that the liscenses are approved anyway doesn't really do much to repay the time and productivity lost because someone down the block doesn't apparently like what you do.

by Drumz on Jun 21, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

The fact that the liscenses are approved anyway doesn't really do much to repay the time and productivity lost because someone down the block doesn't apparently like what you do.

Exactly right. It's a pointless exercise that wastes everyone's time and money. Hence why the people protesting always seem to be the kinds with nothing better to do with their time than throw it away!

by MLD on Jun 21, 2012 4:34 pm • linkreport

Shaw Tavern has it's license. From last month's dispute we learned U Street has 107 licenses. And the last one to be denied was.......

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 21, 2012 4:44 pm • linkreport

I will clarify that I'm speaking specifically to businesses that aren't out of place in an urban neighborhood (like a bar, or laundromat or something). We're not talking about nuclear waste dumps or power plants. We're talking about a bar. Of which there are already hundreds throughout the city.

Add to the fact that this is explicitly about the consumption of alcohol and not the usual tangential issues like parking and trash and you'll forgive if I find that the protestants aren't necessarily acting in good faith about something the city should be involved in.

by drumz on Jun 21, 2012 4:55 pm • linkreport

Great stuff, Eric.

And, yes, you know what's going on with 7th & T which has for more than a century been a corner where the wild side of life is. From rock to dope to smoke 7th & T got it and when you walk through they let you know.

That said folks argument that students are going to be harmed by a business(!) that serves alcohol in a controlled and regulated environment need to walk through that little strip any weekday after about 11am. That's where the winos and cluckers (drug addicts) have congregated for decade after decade.

Commerce makes the world turn and breathing life into this vacant building can't make the problems of street life on 7th & T Street any worse.

Sad is that folks might just scatter elsewhere.

Your perspective and insights are dead on. If only more folks opened their eyes and put on their thinking caps...

by John H Muller on Jun 21, 2012 4:58 pm • linkreport

Yes Shaw Tavern eventually got a license... after it got new owners.

Again Tom, what exactly is the reason why any establishment should be denied a license permanently? Do you have examples of places you think shouldn't have a license?

The ABC board does take people's licenses away temporarily when they screw up. They should just deny licenses and prevent businesses from operating because they can?

by MLD on Jun 21, 2012 5:04 pm • linkreport

MLD- So you think every applicant should be approved for every liquor application and they should be dispensed without limit?

Basically that is the way DC operates now- except that a couple months of trying to get neighbors and the applicant together on a VA precede approval.

In Maryland or Virginia liquor licensing is a major headache and approvals are pretty rare. In fact I don't know of any place that has the rate of unlimited approvals that DC does.

We certainly do waste a lot of money having an ABRA that could easily be replaced with a $5 rubber stamp for approval after 60 days. But the same whiners would still be complaining that the approvals aren't rolling fast enough.

If you're for unlimited licenses for everyone be grateful you're in a place that virtually has them.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 21, 2012 5:54 pm • linkreport

Tom, you can't prove a negative! I can't provide enough evidence to say that there haven't ever been any businesses who are undeserving of a license who have gotten one.

You haven't provided any examples of businesses you think are undeserving. Given your opinion of the ABC I guess I would have thought you'd have some examples.

Also, it's harder in MD and VA? How so? I don't see any examples of businesses b****ing about the process and I see plenty of new businesses, restaurants, etc opening in MD and VA all the time.

One would think that SOMETHING has convinced you, well what is it?

by MLD on Jun 21, 2012 6:05 pm • linkreport

While most objections to liquor licenses are tied up with DC residents' discomfort with any commercial establishments existing in their neighborhoods, I actually have sympathy for them if the issue of school proximity was an honest objection and not just a "throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks" attempt to stop any and all commercial activity in line with normal neighborhood patterns. Because while I don't have any moral objections to consumption of alcohol within line-of-sight of the underaged, plenty of people do, and their values were apparently strong enough to get them written into the DC alcohol licensing regulation laws.

Just because you're not Puritanical about alcohol doesn't mean that no one else is, and if they have enough pull to decree that no alcohol should be served in proximity to schools, that's ok with me, honestly. I have a feeling that some people just looked through the list of laws and figured that this was a good excuse to keep out a restaurateur who was going to "make money off the community without giving back!" kind of stuff we normally see in DC.

by Tyro on Jun 21, 2012 6:55 pm • linkreport

As I asked, the exact liquor applications that have been disapproved in DC are.......?

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 21, 2012 8:02 pm • linkreport

@ Tyro: Just because you're not Puritanical about alcohol doesn't mean that no one else is, and if they have enough pull to decree that no alcohol should be served in proximity to schools, that's ok with me, honestly.

So freedom of religion entails that people can enforce their beliefs onto others? Wow.

by Jasper on Jun 21, 2012 8:21 pm • linkreport

You can have a moral objection against drinking. But

1. Going after it biz by biz is woefully inefficient. Again, dc literally has hundreds of options to get your drink on.

2. 400 feet seems completely arbitrary. I mean all the children who go to the school probably live 400 feet away.

So even if we accept the legitimacy of the opposition I fail how to see the current regs are effective

by Drumz on Jun 21, 2012 9:30 pm • linkreport

So freedom of religion entails that people can enforce their beliefs onto others? Wow.

There is no constitutional right to serve alcohol within 400 feet of a school, just like there's no constitutional right to sell alcohol on Sunday. I disagree with both of those policies, but if we have a vote and the side that supports more restrictive alcohol regulations wins, I accept that not everyone agrees with me.

by Tyro on Jun 21, 2012 10:12 pm • linkreport

The difference between the two sides being that opponents arguments are based on nothing more than emotion, morals, and tradition. In other words, the opposite of logic, reason, and rational thought.
I long for the day when we no longer have to respect ignorance just because it's wrapped in a sheet of religion.

by nbluth on Jun 22, 2012 8:51 am • linkreport

Maybe 400ft is not the right number, but there should be areas of a community that are buffered or Zoned non or restricted ABC. Adult activities should be buffered from youth/family activities.

In our diverse urban environment schools should be centers of activities for youth & families well into the evening. There are plently of other zones in the community for taverns.

While their should be room for exceptions Granting a Tavern Lic is bad shortsighted policy. And yes it does open the flood gates because successful taverns cluster. The Puritans are basically right on this one. In we are headed toward being anti-family.

by W Jordan on Jun 22, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

Adult activities should be buffered from youth/family activities.

Wow. Do I have to give up my "adult card" the instant I have children, since I'm not longer an "adult", I'm a member of a "family"?

we are headed toward being anti-family.

Going out to eat is not anti-family. This is another short-sighted perspective of the very insular and provincial people in DC-- the idea that having a restaurant or tavern, or even a retail store, is some kind of offense to the family and residential living. Part of it comes from the fact that so many people grew up having no idea what it was like to have a "real job" outside of the government or live in a place with any kind of commercial industry that existed to support the local economy.

by Tyro on Jun 22, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport


[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] There's a huge Bar district nearby on 9th St, with similar opportunities on U, 14th and further down 9th. Many places with bouncers, hardly family friendly. And now its an economic imperative to have a Bar next to a school? [Deleted for violating the comment policy.] We are not talking about a business that serves a drink with a meal, but a business whose model is to get folk drunk. That's OK, but not appropriate for every area of the city.

by W Jordan on Jun 23, 2012 9:39 am • linkreport

DC needs an enforced distinction between restaurants and bars. The fact ABRA refuses to do this is perfect regulatory capture.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 24, 2012 11:52 am • linkreport

If we are anti-family because people want to have a cocktail in a separate building across the street from a school, then I suppose there have been no family structures left to speak of in Ireland or the UK for some time now, after a couple hundred years of people drinking with their kids with them INSIDE the bars.

Or the point is absurd.

by Joel on Jun 24, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] if you take a long term broader policy view then yes we are approaching policies that are anti-family. When community development policy is driven by ABC licenses and given alcohol is an age stricted product than yes having few limits on the location of bars is approaching anti-family.

by W Jordan on Jun 25, 2012 7:19 am • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] We are not approaching policies that are anti-family. When community development policy is driven by ABC licenses, that mindset ignores the existence of a myriad of other planning and planning-related agencies, boards, commissions and all their functions.

by Joel on Jun 25, 2012 8:23 am • linkreport

If those agencies, boards and commissions policies result in a general attempt to have schools and taverns co-exist then they are failing. As well, there is no doubt in my mind that class and race play a factor in devaluing policies which are more family friendly in certain neighborhoods. There is really no policy justification for setting aside the 400ft rule in this case. This is just plain bad policy that over values adult play for a child friendly environment.

by W Jordan on Jun 25, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

I see a lot of terms like "anti-family" and "adult play" (which come at the expense of "a child friendly environment") bandied about, but no definitions or argument to back any of this stuff up. This position is not self-evident.

For a lot of people, going out to dinner with kids, meeting up with neighborhood friends...and having a beer or glass of wine are all compatible. In fact, it seems weird and atavistic to talk about these things as though there was common agreement. It's mainly differing cultural traditions.

Take as an example H Street: the Argonaut is about a thousand times more "child friendly" now than when it was a desolate (and alcohol free) patch of concrete, populated by shambling ne'r-do-wells. Same with the re-invented Yards Park--there's alcohol there, and kids, and it mixes quite well, thanks very much.

In fact, I'd argue that alcohol is completely orthogonal to family friendliness, and it's basically a vestige of the Baptist tradition of demonizing alcoholic beverages for social ills that would be there in any case.

there is no doubt in my mind that class and race play a factor in devaluing policies which are more family friendly in certain neighborhoods.

Again, there may be no doubt in your mind; the challenge in a public forum is to form an argument that takes the feelings you hold in your mind and put them out there for public inspection.

by oboe on Jun 25, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

The public policy goal should be to ensure that some areas are quality areas for children, around schools is one. There are special traffic laws, drug laws even noise around schools, especially elementary schools, because strong, thoughtful societies recognize special efforts are needed. I find this effort to reverse this approach headed toward a serious devaluation of children and families.

Most H St is a commercial zone where ABC establishments are within the law. Most of the schools in the area are buffered away.

This issue is in the same ethical class as CM Thomas taking grant money aimed designed for children. Instead, this is the theft of space.

by W Jordan on Jun 26, 2012 7:20 am • linkreport

The knee-jerk argument that a liquor license is going to destroy a family-friendly neighborhood is de rigueur in any neighborhood making a comeback in Philadelphia. Except that here community appeals can hold up the process for 12-24 months. In middle-class neighborhoods it's not at all uncommon here to see children in restaurants that serve liquor at least until 7pm. Even in blue collar neighborhoods where it's less common it still doesn't turn a judgmental eye. It's the neighborhoods where there are more social problems where people think that alcohol is the cause of those problems (as opposed to a manifestation) and can't imagine that people could enjoy a couple of drinks with dinner without it turning into a bender and ending in broken bar stools. When, in fact, the very presence of families and children takes it all down a notch. If you ever want to feel like a buzzkill go out to dinner with your toddler on a saturday evening and linger just a little too long.

by Jim on Jun 29, 2012 10:47 am • linkreport

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